Why Not Married Priests? The Case for Clerical Celibacy
by George Sim Johnston
Each month, when I face an auditorium full of engaged couples preparing for a Catholic marriage, there is a Q-and-A session. It is the interesting, unrehearsed part of the evening. The couples write their queries on a piece of paper, and the anonymity guarantees at least a few hardball questions about the Church and its practices. “What about Galileo?” is among my favorites, along with inquisitive notes about Torquemada. But the majority of these “zingers” turn out to be protests about the Church’s rule of clerical celibacy. “You’ve told us how wonderful marriage is, that it’s a great good for the human person, that the body has a nuptial meaning, and so forth. Well, then: Why can’t priests marry?”
It is a question that comes up among even devout Catholics at coffee hour after Mass and at cocktail parties. A married clergy is seen as the obvious solution to a number of problems that confront the Church, ranging from the shortage of priests to the recent sex scandals. Moreover, both the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches allow married clergy. So do Protestants; and, in fact, the rejection of clerical celibacy was a much larger issue for the leaders of the Reformation than the fuss over indulgences. Luther, Zwingli, Carlstadt, Bucer, and many other rebellious priests soon took wives (often former nuns), while Thomas Cranmer already had one hidden in Germany. During the Council of Trent, powerful rulers like the Emperor Ferdinand put enormous pressure on the Church to abolish the law of celibacy, but the popes resolutely declined, and have done so ever since.
The agitation for a married priesthood has sharpened in recent decades. There is a drumbeat in the media, often from ex-priests who write copiously for the op-ed pages. Probably a majority of American Catholics also favor the change. So, it’s not surprising that my engaged couples think that Rome should “get with the times” and allow priests to marry. Isn’t the rule of celibacy simply another example of a retrograde Church sitting on somebody’s rights?
I surprise my audience by first telling them that clerical celibacy is not a Church doctrine. It is a discipline, and so can be changed. The pope could wake up tomorrow and allow priests to marry. Moreover, in the early centuries there were married priests, starting with some of the apostles. We know that Peter was married, because we’re told that Jesus cured his mother-in-law. The immediate successors to the apostles were also allowed to marry. Paul writes to Timothy that a bishop should be “married but once.” Clearly, by not permitting married clergy, the Church since the early Middle Ages has departed from the more commodious practice of the early hierarchy.
But—a further surprise for my audience—there are, in fact, married priests in the Latin Church today. There aren’t many, because a priest may have a wife only in one circumstance: A Lutheran or Episcopalian minister who is already married and wishes to convert to Catholicism is allowed the option of becoming a Catholic priest, on condition that his wife gives full consent. You don’t usually see these married priests, because they’re generally not given parish assignments; they teach in seminaries or work in the chancery.
But this one exception to the general rule is the occasion of a story that I tell my audience. It is about a friend of mine who is now a prominent Catholic moral theologian. Years ago, he was an Episcopalian priest who decided to convert to Catholicism. He was married with children and was given the option of becoming a Catholic priest. He agonized over the decision. He was already an ordained minister (although the Church does not recognize the validity of Episcopalian orders) and was deeply attracted to the Catholic priesthood. But at the same time, he recognized that there must be serious reasons why the Church insists on a discipline that is such a sign of contradiction to the modern world.
The debate went on, until finally there came the moment of clarification. He was up all night with one of his children who was seriously ill. Feeling drained and haggard, he went to Mass the next morning, and the priest celebrating Mass came out looking equally drawn. During the brief homily, the priest mentioned in passing that he had been up all night with a parishioner’s child who was dying of meningitis. A light bulb went off over my friend’s head: You can’t do both. If you fully understand the vocations to marriage and to the priesthood—the total availability and self-emptying that each demands—you would not choose to do both. And so he became a lay theologian and, apart from raising a large family, has served the Church in ways that he probably could not have as a member of the clergy.
As my bleary-eyed friend discovered at that early morning Mass, the sacraments of Holy Orders and matrimony are too consuming to allow for both. A married priest can’t help giving his first thoughts to his wife and children. To the extent he does so, he may be forgoing his priestly role as “father,” and people who call a married priest “father” would rightly get the idea that they are second in line as spiritual children. Paul understood this perfectly well when he wrote to the Corinthians, “For he who is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of this world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided” (1 Cor 7:32-34).
There are many reasons, both practical and theological, why the Church insists on clerical celibacy. It is a wise practice that was gradually codified in light of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. Early on, it became obvious to many bishops that a married priesthood doesn’t work and that the Church needs men who are willing to embrace a higher spiritual state. Starting with the Spanish Council of Elvira in 305, regional churches began to ask of the clergy what many priests had already spontaneously chosen. The early Church Fathers—Tertullian, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Hilary—wrote in favor of clerical celibacy, and at the end of the Dark Ages, great reforming popes like Leo IX and Gregory VII insisted that henceforth the priesthood would be celibate. This decision greatly strengthened the Church and still does so today.
Admittedly, there’s no hint in the New Testament of celibacy being mandatory either among the apostles or those they ordained. But we have ample warrant in the words of Christ and the writings of Paul that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage. Christ Himself was celibate, and the Incarnation took place, so to speak, in the context of Mary and Joseph’s abstention from sexual relations. Pope Benedict XVI has written eloquently about how Mary’s virginity is really a condition of spiritual fruitfulness. At one point, the disciples ask Christ if it is “expedient not to marry?” He replies that “not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so...and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let him accept it who can” (Mt 19:10-12).
As Christopher West points out, Christ’s use of the word “eunuch” must have profoundly shocked his Jewish listeners. Under the Old Covenant, priests were enjoined to marry and have children who would become priests. Childlessness was seen as a curse, and the idea of a descendant of Abraham opting to be a “eunuch” was unthinkable. But the celibate lives of Mary and Joseph, who brought the Old Covenant to perfection, speak of a new dimension of self-giving. West writes that their celibacy, in effect, brings about “the most fruitful union in the cosmos—the union of the human and divine natures in the person of Christ. All those who live an authentic celibate vocation participate in some way in this new super-abounding spiritual fruitfulness.”
There has always been a deep human intuition that celibacy brings great spiritual gifts, a heightened sensitivity to divine things. Even under the Old Covenant, a married priest had to observe continence while he served in the Temple—in other words, when he was acting as priest. Moses asked that the Jews abstain from conjugal sex while he ascended Mount Sinai, and the prophet Jeremiah was forbidden by God to take a wife in order that he might fulfill his ministry. And although the apostles and their successors had freedom of choice in this matter—at least until the fourth century—a large number of the clergy during this period did choose celibacy. There is a tradition that after their calling by Christ, those apostles who were married lived as though they were not. St. Jerome speaks of a general custom in the late fourth century when he declares that clerics, “even though they may have wives, cease to be husbands.” This is not so exotic as it sounds; in the 20th century the great French theologian Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa, a Jewish convert, had a marriage blanc for the sake of their spiritual apostleship.
The exaltation of celibacy does not in any way denigrate marriage. Nobody can outdo Pope John Paul II in praising conjugal love. And yet, as he points out in his famous talks on the theology of the body, marriage “is only a tentative solution to the problem of a union of persons through love.” The final solution lies only in heaven, where, as Christ explained to the Sadducees, there is no marriage. Those who live celibately are, in effect, “skipping” the sacrament in anticipation of the ultimate reality, the “Marriage of the Lamb.” They are an “eschatological sign” for the rest of us; their total gift of self, which includes their sexuality, to God anticipates the eternal union for which we were all created. The celibate vocation, West writes, “is ‘superior’ only in its more direct orientation toward man’s superior heavenly destiny.”
A married clergy would certainly dilute the Catholic priesthood as an eschatological sign. But it would also involve practical problems. One of the great strengths of an unmarried clergy is their availability. During World War I, there were many converts to Catholicism among British soldiers fighting in the trenches. This was because the Catholic priests were right up there in the danger zone, hearing confessions and giving spiritual counsel, while many Anglican ministers held back, understandably thinking about their wives and children at home. Recently, a priest I know expressed delight at being assigned to an impoverished area of New York. “I want to work among the poor,” he told me. Would this be his attitude if he were married with small children? His wife’s probable reaction would be, “I’m not going to raise the kids in that neighborhood.”
Clerical marriages, moreover, are not easy. I am told that the wives of the handful of Catholic clergy who have the dispensation from celibacy are the first to support the Church’s general position. Preachers’ wives and preachers’ kids do not have an easy time. Just read the novels of Trollope or Samuel Butler’s much underrated The Way of All Flesh, whose narrator complains about being the son of a clergyman:
I have often thought that the Church of Rome does wisely in not allowing her priests to marry. Certainly it is a matter of common observation in England that the sons of clergymen are frequently unsatisfactory. The explanation is very simple.... The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday. He is paid for this business of leading a stricter life than other people. It is his raison d’etre. If his parishioners feel that he does this, they approve of him, for they look upon him as their own contribution towards what they deem a holy life.... But his home is his castle as much as that of any other Englishman, and with him, as with others, unnatural tension in public is followed by exhaustion when tension is no longer necessary. His children are the most defenseless things he can reach, and it is on them that nine cases out of ten that he will relieve his mind.
Obviously, not all married clergymen are like this, but clerical marriages have their special difficulties, and, unlike 130 years ago, when Butler wrote his novel, there is now the possibility of divorce. This is already a serious problem in the Anglican Church. It is inevitable that after a decade or so of a married Catholic priesthood, there would be a fair number of divorced priests, some clamoring for remarriage. And as for those priests who still chose not to marry: Might there not be a corresponding diminishment of their public image, so that they would tend to be regarded more as pious bachelors than a special sign among us? Their freedom to get romantically involved with female parishioners gives such questions even more point.
Another practical consideration is the financial cost of allowing priests to marry. The average salary of a diocesan priest is $20,000, and living arrangements in a parish rectory allow for many economies. Married priests would most likely want to live outside the rectory, would need much higher salaries to support a family, and there would be an exponential increase in insurance costs. Where would the money come from? As it is, many parishes can barely pay their bills. Will Catholics in the pews be willing to significantly increase their weekly contributions? The answer is that some will, but many will not, and too many parishes would find themselves in an even deeper financial hole.
The most insistent argument for a married clergy is that it would cure the shortage of priests. The reasons for the decline in the number of clergy are too numerous to go into here. Almost every Catholic shares some of the blame. On the institutional side, there’s the past situation in many seminaries and the refusal of some diocesan vocation directors to present the priesthood in its full spiritual dimension, which includes the challenge of celibacy. If you look around today, it is striking which dioceses (for example, Denver) have plentiful vocations. They raise the bar very high and, taking a page from John Paul II, present celibacy as a great spiritual gift. In contrast, some dioceses, until recently, held out to seminarians the possibility of a reversal of the rule of celibacy; they certainly did not present celibacy in a positive light. Those dioceses with near-empty seminaries might want to look at those that are doing it right. They will find—among other things—a vibrant orthodoxy and a theologically rich understanding of the call to celibacy.
As for the Catholic laity: Along with the widespread use of the Pill, there has been a corresponding diminution of generosity in family size, which means fewer vocations. (One could make the case, by the way, that natural family planning allows a couple to participate in the spiritual benefits of celibacy; the periodic abstinence is part of the “gift” of themselves to one another and to God.) But the point is that there will be many more vocations if both the clergy and the laity fully live their Christian vocations, which include prayer, sacrifice, and generosity. Although it may be tempting in the short term, the solution is not to define the priesthood down in order to attract men who will only take a lightened version of Holy Orders.
The other argument against celibacy is that the Church’s requirement of continence is a primary cause of the sex scandals. Plying their Freud, “experts” like Richard Sipe argue that a lack of sexual outlets drives priests into pedophilia. But the recent scandals have little to do with pedophilia, a clinical disorder whose incidence among Catholic priests is no greater than among the general population. Rather, the majority of episodes involves homosexual acts with teenagers or young men, and it may be wondered how marriage would solve this particular problem. It is clear that not a few homosexual men have entered the priesthood partly as a “cover” for their condition. Arguably, it would only make matters worse if they had to take on a wife as additional camouflage. In any event, it wouldn’t stop some of them from going after teenage boys, as has been amply demonstrated in other clerical milieu.
It should also be pointed out that Freud was wrong about the nature and effects of “sexual repression”—in other words, abstinence. He considered it the taproot of all neuroses, and the sexual revolution has been driven by his idea that such “repression” is a very bad thing. But we all know celibate priests—and laity, for that matter—who are adjusted and well-balanced. We also meet promiscuous individuals who are not. Freud nonetheless taught that the libido is a pressure that builds relentlessly to the point where it demands release, as in a steam engine; and if you don’t find a sexual outlet, you become neurotic, or even worse.
But, in fact, our sex drives don’t work that way. There is no build-up of pressure in the central nervous system, and the libido doesn’t plot revenge if for whatever reason one is continent for a period of time. It largely depends on what “messages” one allows to get through to it, which is why the Church has always taught the necessity of guarding one’s eyes and imagination. This is not Puritanism, but self-possession; and all Christians, not just Catholic priests, are called to this heroic struggle. The more likely neurotics are those who separate sex from married love and, in the process, compulsively turn people into objects, into a means to an end. The sexual revolution, which amounted to a willful misreading of human nature, has failed on its own terms, but there are still those who want the Church to buy into it.
In a world that has absolutized sex, a celibate priesthood is a necessary sign of higher things. It’s tough, but then so is Christianity. Those who wish to abolish celibacy generally favor other dilutions of Catholic doctrine and discipline. They are pursuing an essentially bourgeois project. They think that Christianity is fine so long as it makes no demands and, as a corollary, that the Church should turn itself into yet another liberal Protestant denomination. But these leftover modernists are no longer in the ascendancy, if they ever were, and it is not surprising that the recent synod of bishops in Rome overwhelmingly endorsed the Church’s ancient discipline of celibacy.
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George Sim Johnston is a member of the Crisis
executive board and author of Did Darwin Get It Right?
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